By Aishatu Yusuf, E-RYT, Inclusion Teacher Trainer
The word yoga itself derives from the root word, “yuj” which in Sanskrit, means to unite or come together. Originating over 5,000 years ago in northern India, with roots in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, the modern forms of yoga have morphed from their original conception. In fact, what is now widely recognized as the practice of yoga is not how it was originally discussed in historical Hindu texts (Hindu American Foundation). Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gītā, two of the most cited sources of yoga literature, mention very little about postures or breathing in their text (Deslippe, 2019). Even Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu monk associated with bringing yoga to the United States in 1893, talked about yoga as a matter of philosophy and self-work, not physical movement (although it is believed that he practiced Hatha Yoga). My point here is that yoga, even in its most ancient of uses, was not a monolith but a term that has changed over time, in meaning and use. However, despite yoga being a term that has and can morph, there do remain fundamental truths about the practice of yoga, regardless of how one chooses to define it. One such truth is that yoga, by definition means to unite or bring together, both internally and externally. If this is true, how did yoga become known as an exclusionary and elite practice?
Hatha Yoga, the yoga of forceful exertion and arguably, the most recognized form of yoga in the United States was robustly recognized in the US in the 1920s. Shru Yogendra, an Indian yoga guru is credited as one of the most influential people to modernize Hatha yoga in the United States. Because of Yogendra and other Indian teachers, yoga began to grow in popularity. However, in 1924, the United States instituted the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Asian Exclusion Act which set quotas on the number of individuals that could migrate into the United States from Asia. This meant that Indian yogis were largely prohibited from entering and staying in the United States to teach yoga. Thus, Americans, that were able to do so, traveled to India to learn and practice (Deslippe, 2019). This is also during the time of the great migration of Black Americans fleeing the South to more northern states due to its racial segregation and violence (Kornweibel, 1976). So, it is a safe assumption, based on the experience of Black Americans in the United States, the experience of the Indigenous people in the United States, and laws around immigration, that those traveling to India to practice yoga and bring it back, were primarily white. During this time many Indian yoga teachers also began to more heavily participate in the selling of yoga to Americans. As some scholars describe, yoga provided an avenue for Indian people to be accepted into white mainstream through the perpetuation of colonization through the commodification of yoga (Gandhi & Wolff, 2017). Today, whether one believes any practice of yoga is theft, appropriation, or simply the commodification and commercialization of spiritual goods, this $80 billion-dollar global industry continues to grow.
My goal is not to argue whether we should or should not practice yoga, each should engage in research and decide for themselves. But to tie us back to the start of this conversion, if we do believe in the origin of the word yoga, to unite, according to scholars like Dr. Pandit Tigunait, “yoga goes beyond all man-made “ism” and is for everyone.” If yoga is in fact for everyone, why is it that some remain excluded? Many articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, Yoga Journal, and others have discussed at length the domination of white individuals, specifically women in the asana yoga space. In the most recent Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal survey, over 37 million Americans practice yoga, and more than 80% identify as white. The industry does not only include the practice of yoga, but also the goods; yoga mats, socks, pants, and other products, which have historically been marketed toward a white, female audience and the price point makes most of the goods out of reach for most Americans. So, why yoga does continue to have an inclusivity problem, especially when yoga itself originated in India? The truth is, yoga much like many systems and industries in the United States reflects the greater ills of the culture. Yoga does not uniquely have a race, class, access, and representation problem, America does. And because the practice or selling of yoga has now been commodified primarily by the white elite in the United States, it too now has access and representation problems.
It seems important at this point to state my positionality. As authors like Wink, 2011 and Milner, 2007 discuss, my positionality can influence my biases and my opinions on a subject. And in this case, my positionality is quite relevant. I am both a long-time yoga practitioner and teacher. I am also a Black woman, who has experienced racism and marginalization inside yoga studios and by numerous yoga teachers and students. My identity and experiences as a Black American and as a yoga teacher allow me to more clearly see the alignment to the issues of race in America and how those permeate different industries, like the yoga space.
Because America has race, access, and representation issues, so do its institutions and industries. From schools to the workforce to the yoga industry. The extent of exclusion in the yoga space does not end with race and economics but also includes body size, disabilities, and other characteristics that marginalize people. Well-known authors like Jessamyn Stanley and Amber Karnes discuss this topic at length. But, imagine just for a moment, that your body sits at the intersection of multiple societal and social exclusions, the impact of that exclusion can be amplified. Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw is credited with the phrase structural intersectionality, originally used to describe the intersections of race and sex in feminism. But, the term has been used to describe identities that do not exist in isolation but intersect and overlap which can manifest in unique experiences, privileges, and oppressions. In the yoga space, one can be both Indigenous and have a bigger body or identify as Black with a physical disability. Crenshaw, 2011 notes that individuals that sit at the intersection of two or more identity categories are often left out of focus. This could not be more apparent in the yoga space. Since the arrival of Hatha yoga in the United States, the industry has focused on a succinct demographic of people, and this demographic has not included people of color or people with varying body types and needs. In fact, it has so intensely focused on this demographic that one would believe that Black and Brown people, people with bigger bodies or diverse needs do not practice or teach yoga, which is fundamentally not true. This biased focus has led to the eraser of the Indian people from yoga, and a lack of representation of diverse demographic in the space.
Ok, so what to do about it? The good news is that people are not shying away from this discourse. Whether yoga companies choose to do something about it, or not, they are aware of the heightened scrutiny based on the industry’s lack of diversity. Because of this, this has led to many changes. Yoga Alliance recently lead a series with The Driven Yogi on inclusion in the yoga space focused on trauma-informed yoga and DEI. Larger yoga franchises have branched out and offered lower-cost community classes, and franchises large and small have created intentional campaigns to recruit more teachers of color. Media and advertisement have become more inclusive and I’ve seen more local studios open up in Black and Brown communities. I’ve also seen studios hire a more diverse body of teachers, including teachers with bigger bodies and teachers of color. Most importantly, because this has become an issue that the yoga industry cannot hide from, I’ve seen students use their voices and demand better representation, more diversity, and more spaces where everyone feels they belong.
But we can do more:
For Everyone (teachers, practitioners, and soon-to-be practitioners)
- Don’t stop practicing yoga. But do take a look around your studio and assess who is in each class, and who your teachers are, and begin to ask the studio manager questions if the space is not reflective of the diversity of our nation.
- Pay attention in class to the studio advertisements. Are they race, body size, and disability representative? If they are, does the studio reflect what they are advertising?
- Ask the studio owners whether the teachers received DEI training
- Instead of only attending the big-box studio, try attending a local studio in or near your community
- Listen to what your yoga teacher says and how they cue different postures. It is inclusive? Are they using languages that do not exclude?
- If you want to teach, ask the studio if they offer a scholarship for teacher training, if they do not, ask why not
- Ask studio owners where teachers receive training outside of the 200-hour requirements.
- Tell studio owners that you want to engage in DEI training
- Step outside of your typical classes, go teach at a park or at a community center
- Ask the studio owner if you can teach a donation-based class
- Ask for training in teaching people with disabilities
- Ask the studio owner to invite all of you to co-teach with guest teachers, specific teachers from local studios in a diverse community
- Think about your classes, are you offering props (block, staps, etc. ) to everyone in the class or do you sometimes single certain people out?
I want to be clear, yoga is for thin white people, yoga is for thin Black people, yoga is for bigger-bodied Latinx people, yoga is for Indigenous people with physical disabilities, and yoga is for white people with bigger bodies and a physical disability. It might not be appropriate for each of these groups of people to attend the same yoga class, as they might have specific needs and need specific teachers. But, the purpose of increasing diversity is the opportunity to provide choices and options for all of those to attend. The root word of yoga is “yuj,” to unite. If we can collectively practice the spirit of yoga, which includes bridging our own internal disconnection, advocating for those seen and unseen in our yoga spaces, asking critical and hard questions that require change, and inviting others to the yoga space, then we will be practicing yoga, in one of its original intentions, together.